Nielsen, the far-too-powerful institution that measures television ratings—and by association, is the governing body by which hundreds of thousands working in the television industry are beholden to for their very livelihood—announced today a major fuck-up: A system error has resulted in faulty ratings reports since March of this year.
According to company's statement, the error entered their system March 2 and they didn't notice until October 6—four days ago. What finally alerted them to the error? Shows getting too-high ratings during premiere week, when the broadcast networks debut a slew of their new shows. From Deadline:
The possibility of a problem surfaced at the beginning of the fall TV season as the number of viewers increased. It was particularly noticeable at ABC where — as my colleague Nellie Andreeva reported last week — the network's fast nationals in adults 18-49 and total viewers were adjusted up every night for the first nine days. On eight of the nine nights, the entire ABC lineup went up in the finals. That meant 20 programs saw a lift without a single downward adjustment in 18-49. Over the same period, the other major broadcast networks saw 15 adjustments combined – nine up a tenth and six down a tenth. Nielsen declined to say whether ABC might have benefited from its glitch, saying that the network was entitled to review the numbers before they're released on Monday.
"As a result, small amounts of viewing for some national broadcast networks and syndicators were misattributed," their statement reads. "Cable networks and local TV ratings were not affected by this error."
Ratings dating back to Aug. 18 of this year will be reprocessed and corrected data will be released at the end of the month. Nielsen will also be "conducting an impact analysis to determine whether additional weeks should be reprocessed." From the company's statement, via Capital New York:
As part of our investigation, we have also determined that there are no issues with the National People Meter, our data collection process, our panel, our TV audience measurement methodology or the total TV viewership data produced during this affected period.
Full disclosure: For a brief period, I was part of a Nielsen household and asked to journal, on paper, what shows I watched and when I watched them. I was expected to mail those journals back to Nielsen. I believe there was a nominal payment involvement, but I never ended up following through, because why the fuck would I? I imagine many others asked to journal have felt the same.
Journaling is not the only way Nielsen pulls in ratings data, of course: Some households get little receivers that get attached to their cable boxes and they also get data from DVRs to measure time-shifted viewing.
But at a time when ratings for the broadcast networks have essentially cratered and created a razor-thin margin by which network shows—to many in the industry a holy grail of commercial achievement—are measured, this kind of screwup by Nielsen is an even louder call for a new method of measuring TV viewership. (Please: Tell us what a better way would be. Anything has to be better than what we have.)
How many shows "on the bubble" for renewal this past spring because of their low Nielsen numbers had their already tiny ratings compromised by the single institution measuring their "success"? Those shows won't be uncancelled, and the hundreds of people who lost their jobs—actors, writers, producers, crew members—won't get their jobs back.
"In the vast majority of cases, the impact is small; in a handful of cases, the impact is more significant," Nielsen writes in their statement. Fuck Nielsen.
[Image via Shutterstock]